By Jörg Macke

A summary of a group project carried out by Jörg in collaboration with Soesja Vogels, Claudia Figueroa and Camille Ong as part of their MSc Psychology of Economic Life.  

We all know what it is like living in today’s digitalised society. A short look at your phone can turn into an hour-long scroll.  Riding the crowded underground in London, everyone’s staring down at their phone instead of engaging with the person – no, stranger! – next to them.  And when you meet your friends or family for dinner, more time is spent with taking Instagram pics or staying updated on social media about what other people are currently up to. Any of this sound familiar?

No doubt, smartphones have become an integral part of today’s society. For many of us, the smartphone is an omnipresent companion. And, although they have undoubtedly enriched our everyday lives in numerous ways, a growing pile of evidence points to adverse consequences that arise from smartphone overuse. Said consequences range from negative cognitive side effects (shorter attention spans) and mental health issues (anxiety and stress), to undermining our social relationships (conversations at the dinner table are taking a hit the world over!).

The habit-forming nature of smartphones lies at the core of the problem: Given that smartphones are conveniently sized portable devices, they are typically kept within close reach. This in turn facilitates immediate, often unconscious checking for notifications. The constant checking for these pieces of information provides us with micro-rewards which perpetuate the behavioural pattern. Habitual smartphone use is further fuelled by social pressure to be reachable and remain connected in today’s interconnected world.

The complex interplay of these physical, psychological and social forces creates the perfect storm for the formation of a habit and leaves us wide open to overuse. Although habits can be useful in making unconscious decisions, thus leaving decision-making facilities available for newer, or more complex situations, they can also become maladaptive. Habits are characterised by a lack of awareness, conscious control and intention, which raises the difficult question of how to break them.

Solely influencing users’ intention to curb their smartphone use is not sufficient to break habits. The intention-behaviour gap renders one-off interventions like informational campaigns ineffective. Take the “Look Up” poem as an example: It aims to inspire people to use their smartphone less by narrating a love story that – as it turns out in the end – actually never took place due to the protagonists being too busy looking down at their smartphone. The campaign is emotionally appealing, and it can temporarily change our attitude towards phone use. However, influencing users’ intentions  is not enough to break habits, as they are constantly reinforced and mostly performed unconsciously.   Similarly, a digital detox – refraining from using digital technologies for a certain amount of time – is likely to fail as the same habitual cues will enforce the behaviour pattern once the detox has ended.

Against this background, and as part of our work for our MSc in Psychology of Economic Life, we are proposing a smartphone application called FamilyTime. Theoretically grounded in the literature on habit formation and breaking, the app specifically targets family units who want to curb their smartphone use. Why focus on families? The answer is simple: Due to social learning processes, excessive smartphone use of parents directly impacts their children’s usage. Children usually get their first smartphone at an early age when their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed – a developmental stage which is associated with a lack of self-control. Accordingly, they are especially at risk of developing dysfunctional habits. Importantly, families also constitute social units which increase the likelihood of behaviour change compared to individuals’ attempts to do so.

Critics might argue that the idea to design a smartphone application to break smartphone habits is contradictory. However, this is only true at first glance. Ideally, existing smartphone devices, and more specifically smartphone applications, should be designed in a way that do not lead to problematic behaviours in the first place. However, it remains to be seen whether smartphone technology and application companies will act as their business models are often built upon the habit-forming features that hook people on to their product. Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind the different forces that perpetuate smartphone habits. An intervention which aims to successfully counteract these forces over a longer period of time needs to start with the smartphone itself.

FamilyTime centres around three core ideas:

1) empowering users to manage changes to their phone’s physical environment,

2) raising users’ awareness and help set usage goals, and

3) providing a social support space to do this.

Accordingly, FamilyTime provides an ‘App Control Centre’:  a centralised place for users to not only manage notifications for all their apps, but to also choose extra options such as ‘Mix App,’ which rearranges the locations of all the apps on the phone to counteract habitual use. ‘Pickup Reminder’ promotes intentional placement of the smartphone by sending reminders after a high frequency of pickups to place the smartphone in a less convenient place (i.e. not beside you). FamilyTime monitors each family member’s phone usage and the collective progress towards a common group goal. This goal is set weekly by the head of the family which rotates among the group and gives children an equal opportunity to be the group leader.

In order to ensure that the App is enjoyable, we have introduced competition modes. ‘My Challenge Mode’ gives the user levelled challenges that promote better phone behaviour while ‘We Challenge Mode’ allows one family member to challenge another to a direct challenge and set the stakes (e.g. lowest screentime, particular app usage, or phone checks).  Equally important, the app does not contain any scrolling pages, advertisements or other attention-draining features and attempts to shift attention from the smartphone towards offline activities.

FamilyTime is a first step towards gaining back control over our behavioural choices and breaking out of the smartphone overuse cycle. It’s a first step towards a world in which technology doesn’t hijack our attention and take us hostage, but in which we develop beneficial habits and – ultimately – have a much healthier relationship to the technology that we use on a daily basis.